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Movie Review: 'X-Men: First Class' falls short of predecessors

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“X-Men: First Class”
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Oliver Platt, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, Jason Flemyng, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Alex Gonzalez
Rated: PG-13

“Programs! Get your program! You can't tell the players without a program!”

That used to be a familiar cry at the ballpark from vendors hawking programs with the players' names, numbers and stats.

When I saw “X-Men: First Class,” I kept wishing someone would come down the aisle selling programs so I could keep all the mutants in the fifth installment of the “X-Men” franchise sorted out.  This latest “X-Men” isn't as good as its predecessors but sits right in the middle, despite the befuddling number of ancillary characters.

Director Matthew Vaughn is no stranger to crime/action films, having produced “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” He also has had a turn at superheroes, as he directed the comedy, “Kickass,” a sweet, touching little film about a group of ragtag, outsider teenagers who reinvent themselves as crime-fighting “superheroes.” If you haven't seen it, definitely give it a look on DVD.

When Bryan Singer (who is on board here as a producer) directed the first “X-Men” in 2000, he eschewed any origin story. I suppose he figured the core audience would be fans of the popular Marvel Comics series featuring the mutants. Other audience members wouldn't really be too upset. They already were suspending their disbelief in the first place.

But now, in episode five - a prequel - the writers and producers have decided we need to know the origins of how these (and other) mutants came into the world - it was sometime around World War II - and how the title characters got together to form their super group.

The film opens in a Nazi concentration camp. It's come to the attention of the Nazis running the hellhole that a young boy has the power to perform the function of a human magnet. It's a well established fact the Nazis were very interested in the occult and the paranormal; facts such as this are interwoven into the fantasy world of the comic book series. When trying to get the boy to perform his “tricks,” the head Nazi, Sebastian Shaw, has the boy's mom brought into the room. He summarily executes her in front of the child. This one act of violence will eventually shape the life of the boy, Erik Lehnsherr, who will grow up to become the mutant known as Magneto.

Around that same time, in another part of the world, Charles Xavier is realizing that he has the power to read minds and to project his thoughts into other peoples' heads.

Xavier is enlisted by the CIA to use his mental powers to locate other mutants across the globe with the hope of recruiting them to help fight the Nazi menace.

Erik and Charles become great friends and enjoy sharing their mutant powers with each other, although they have very different philosophies. Xavier believes when certain menaces are remedied, man and mutant will live together in peace. Erik is more cynical and believes mankind will never embrace the mutants. He isn't opposed to the use of violence and, indeed, is certain that another world war, this one with nuclear weapons, is inevitable. He doesn't much care.

The film jumps to 1962. Charles is a professor at Oxford, and Erik is in South America trying to find Sebastian Shaw. It's payback time.

Once again, the CIA enlists the help of Xavier and the small group of mutants he has assembled. This time the job involves helping with The Bay of Pigs covert action.

The director does a nice job of crafting the look and vibe of the early 1960s and even throws in some archival footage of John F. Kennedy speaking to the world.

Throughout the remainder of the film, mutants come and mutants go. The ones who stay are forced to take sides. Either be with Charles - who is now running a mutant training academy - or join forces with Magneto and help him with his plan to keep mankind firmly under the thumbs of the mutants.

One problem with prequels is the fact that we already know what happens in the future. If a character is in trouble and it looks like death is near, we needn't worry. We know he was in other films so he's going to be OK here. Another thing is the anticipation. In the present, Professor Xavier is in a wheelchair. In “First Class,” he isn't. So I kept wondering, “When are they going to show us what happened to him?” And I kept wondering at what point Magneto goes to the dark side.

There are some decent (as well as some cheesy) special effects in “X-Men: First Class” as well as several action-packed fight scenes. There's a nice twist in Act 3 concerning Shaw.

I am a longtime “X-Men” fan. I started reading the comics in fourth grade and even liked the last two films, which were not very well received in most quarters. So my judgment is a bit skewed. But this is a good superhero movie, despite the fact that too many characters tend to obfuscate the big picture.

With the price of movie tickets what they are, “X-Men: First Class” may be something you'll want to wait and catch on DVD.
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